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Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom; Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: Norton, 2003)

         At the turn of the century, notes Zakaria, not a single country in the world could boast a democracy in which every adult citizen could vote, whereas today some 119 countries would qualify.  Free elections coupled with free markets are the cure all for backward countries, according to some.  The Bush administration insists that it is bringing political and economic freedoms to Iraq.  In The End of History, Francis Fukuyama argued that we are at the “end” of history because capitalism and liberal democracy have triumphed over all other alternatives [he revised this view in Our Posthuman Future (2002), where he argued that history is not over because the consequences of science are just beginning].  Thomas Friedman exhibits a similar optimism in The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

         Not so quick, insists Zakaria, who reminds us that some democracies are horribly illiberal.  What, for example, might a Shiite democratic majority in Iraq look like?  Sometimes free elections lead to tyrants and demagogues, not the rule of law, the separation of powers, a free press, property rights, the protection of free speech and the like.  In Russia, Yeltsin came to power by free elections and was incredibly popular, but by the end of his rule he was an autocrat who ruled by fiat and presidential decree.  Free elections brought Milosevic to power in Yugoslavia (1990) and with him genocide.  Hugo Chavez was freely elected in Venezuela (1998) and proved himself a dictator.  Leaders like Mubarak in Egypt and Arafat in Palestine argue that if they liberalize political dissent like the west urges them to do, Muslim extremists would take over.

         Zakaria argues that we confuse democracy and free elections; the latter does not guarantee the former.  It’s a shame that not one of the 22 states in the Arab League is an electoral democracy, but we should admit that the autocrats who rule there might well be better than freely elected alternatives.  We best proceed, he thinks, by helping countries establish stable economic and political institutions, and only then free elections.  China, he thinks, is headed in the right direction because it has liberalized its economy before its politics.  Russia, on the other hand, tried to do both at once and is a failure.

         In short, we tend to oversell capitalism and an attenuated version of democracy.  Unfettered free markets and free elections are not a cure all.   If not restrained by a larger vision they can have disastrous consequences.

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